Dozens of students descended on Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex earlier this month, eager to present projects they designed that will soon fly to space on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission. The experiments, facilitated by RTI, DreamUp, and STARWard STEM and sponsored by the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory, are part of an effort to excite and engage the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Career opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are expected to grow exponentially over the next two decades—by as much as twice all other fields combined. To help ensure the STEM workforce expands enough to meet these increasing needs, teachers in grades K-12 are turning to project-based learning practices (PBL) to pique curiosity, inspire creativity, and enhance problem-solving skills that will set students up to be successful in STEM careers.
With funding provided by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the STARWard STEM program allows kids in Cumberland County, North Carolina—the fifth largest school district in the state and one of the highest populations of military-connected students in the southeast—to reach for the stars by designing projects to fly to space. The program targets kids in grades K-12, encouraging them to develop scientific experiments that can be conducted on the space station inside specialized tubes called Mixstix, designed by ISS National Lab Commercial Service Provider Nanoracks, a Voyager Space company.
Three groups of Cumberland County students recently traveled to Florida to visit Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex ahead of the launch that their experiments are scheduled to fly on. The students spent the day touring the center before it was time to present their projects, which involve vitamin D, frankincense, and a type of green leafy vegetable called Swiss chard.
“Congrats to all of you,” said Melotta Hill, chief academic officer for Cumberland County School district, addressing the students over Zoom. “Your experiments are going to be right there [on the space station] next to researchers from universities and agencies around the world.”
NASA is working to understand how plants grow in space to one day be able to supplement astronaut diets with freshly grown vegetables. As such, one group of students designed an experiment to investigate how Swiss chard seeds are affected by microgravity. The students proposed a two-fold experiment: first, they will analyze how microgravity affects the size, shape, and color of Swiss chard as it grows in the Mixstix tubes. Then, they will analyze the amount of sugar and other dissolved mineral levels in the sprouts once the plant samples return to Earth.
Another student experiment will examine the physical properties of frankincense resin in space. Previous research indicates that frankincense is beneficial for treating both anxiety and depression. It has also been shown to have antiseptic qualities. So, for this investigation, the student team will send frankincense resin to the space station to see if its properties are changed by microgravity conditions. The students hypothesize that microgravity will have no effect on the properties of frankincense, which will help bolster the notion that frankincense could be used as treatment options for astronauts on long-duration spaceflight missions.
A third group of students designed an investigation focused on vitamin D for astronauts. On Earth, sunlight is an excellent source of vitamin D, but astronauts don’t have access to sunlight during spaceflight. The team of students partnered with Jeffrey Wiley, a medical doctor from Wake Forest School of Medicine, to see if they could develop a vitamin D supplement for astronauts. The students proposed to infuse rock candy with vitamin D, providing the astronauts with a tasty treat and an added nutrient boost. Their investigation would examine the growth of the rock candy crystals in space and on Earth. The team hypothesized that due to a lack of gravity, the space-grown crystals would be larger. Future iterations of this project could add calcium to the vitamin D-infused rock candy.
“We were inspired by how important space is to the future of humanity,” said Noelle Neese, a student from VanStory Hills Elementary School who is working on the vitamin D experiment. “So, we wanted to come up with something that would help the astronauts.”
These projects and many more will fly on SpaceX CRS-29, which is targeted to launch from Kennedy Space Center no earlier than November 5 at 10:01 p.m. EST. This mission will include more than 15 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. For more information, please visit our launch page.